New Clause 7 — Variation in limit of number of holders of Ministerial offices

Speaker's Statement – in the House of Commons at 7:15 pm on 25th October 2010.

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'(1) The House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 is amended as follows.

(2) For section 2(1) substitute-

"(1) The number of holders of offices specified in Schedule 2 to this Act (in this section referred to as Ministerial offices) entitled to sit and vote in the House of Commons at any one time, whether paid or unpaid, must not exceed 95 if the number of constituencies in the United Kingdom is 650.".

(3) After section 2(1) insert-

"(1A) If the number of constituencies in the United Kingdom decreases below 650, the limit on the number of holders of Ministerial offices entitled to sit and vote in the House of Commons referred to in section 2(1) must be decreased by at least a proportionate amount.".

(4) In subsection (2), after "subsection (1)", insert "or subsection (1A)".'.- (Mr Charles Walker.)

Brought up, and read the First time .

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 7 would amend the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, which currently sets the maximum number of Ministers allowed in this place at 95. As you know, Mr Streeter, part of this Bill, if passed, will bring about a reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600. My new clause is very modest in its scope. All I am seeking to do is to amend the 1975 Act to ensure that the ceiling for the number of Ministers is pushed down from 95 to 87, which directly reflects the percentage reduction in the number of Members of Parliament.

My new clause is very moderate. Many colleagues urged me to go further and to make a real assault on the patronage of the Executive, but I thought that that would be unreasonable and unreasonably ambitious. There might be voices of self-interest, largely residing on the Front Bench, who argue that we have the right amount of Ministers. They might even argue that we need more Ministers. I hope that I do not hear those arguments tonight.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Might there not be even more Back Benchers interested in increasing the number from 95 to about 195?

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

The hon. Gentleman makes his usual sparky intervention.

Rafts of leading academics and political commentators have recognised for a long time that there are far too many Ministers in this place. Sir John Major, the former Prime Minister, has argued that we could easily do as well with a reduction of 25 to 30%. Lord Turnbull, the former Cabinet Secretary, told the Select Committee on Public Administration earlier this year that the number of Ministers could be cut by 50%. Professor Anthony King has argued the same, as has Lord Norton of Louth.

Of course, those academics and political commentators are in good company. Our own Deputy Prime Minister argued in January that the number of Ministers should be reduced.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Shadow Minister (Equalities Office)

Has the hon. Gentleman spoken more recently to the Deputy Prime Minister, because it is my impression that he is not likely to say today the things he said in January?

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

The Deputy Prime Minister is a man of great integrity. I recognise that this is his Bill, and once he has heard the force of my argument he will rush here and demand a rethink from his Front Benchers.

Speaking at the Institute for Government in January, the Deputy Prime Minister called for the House of Commons to be reduced to 500 and for the number of Ministers across both Houses to be cut to 73. The Government's demands are much more moderate. They are talking about reducing the size of the House to 600, but if we reduce it to 600, following the Deputy Prime Minister's logic, we should reduce the number of Ministers by 15. That would tally with his mathematics, but, as I said, my new clause is modest. I am not calling for a reduction in the number of Ministers by 15. I know that many Members are demanding that I do that, but I shall not hear it. I am simply demanding a reduction in the number of Ministers by eight.

Many people here have argued privately in the corridors that there is no link between the size of the House of Commons and the number of Ministers. That is total nonsense. We know that as far back as the Bill of Rights of 1689 this House expressed concerns about the Crown having a presence here in the form of Ministers. The 1701 Act of Settlement tried extremely hard to remove Ministers from this place, because the politicians of that time wondered how one could serve the Crown as well as one's constituents. Unfortunately, that never saw the light of day because the Executive got their way in 1706. As recently as 1926, if someone became a Minister of the Crown, he was required, in between general election periods, to resign his seat so that his constituents could decide whether their Member of Parliament could serve two masters-the interests of the constituents and the interests of the Crown.

That is where I am coming from. I am arguing for a modest reduction in the number of Ministers. We have had enormous ministerial inflation since 1983. Margaret Thatcher-we all remember her, that great lady-had 81 Ministers to run this country in 1983. We now require 95. Is the world so much more complex? I say to those who argue that it is that since 1983 we have privatised a large number of previously Government-owned industries and we have allowed Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to have their own devolved Assemblies. The number of Ministers has still risen inexorably.

I do not want to try your patience, Mr Streeter, by straying off new clause 7 and talking about inflation in the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries, but we are now seeing 50 PPSs adding to an already burgeoning payroll. Although these people are not even paid, they are called the payroll vote. As far back as the 1960s, one could be a PPS and vote against the Government without danger of losing that role, but that is not the case today. The civil service code of conduct says that a PPS is required always to support their Government.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration Committee, Chair, Public Administration Committee

I am mystified as to what the role of a PPS has to do with the civil service code.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to correct me. It is the ministerial code, which is similar to the civil service code.

Those on the Front Bench might well argue that they have made progress in reducing the cost of the ministerial payroll. They will argue-it is a bit of a red herring-that on taking the seals of office, Ministers took a 5% pay cut. In reality, they did not take a pay cut, because they went from being in opposition to being in government and took a 25 to 50% pay rise. It just was not as large a pay rise as it could have been.

The savings to the ministerial payroll are about £500,000, not an insignificant sum. Lord Turnbull said to the Public Administration Committee that the average cost of maintaining a Minister, with private offices, cars and private secretaries, is £500,000 per Minister. By reducing the ministerial payroll by eight in 2015, we will save the taxpayer a further £4 million. While we are at it, we might like to consider the 10 unpaid Ministers we have across the two Houses, because if we got rid of them we could save another £5 million. However, that is an argument for another time and another place.

Mr Streeter, you know better than anyone that we live in an age of austerity. Things are changing. We are dismissing senior permanent secretaries from across the civil service. We are removing chief executives of councils and their directors. We are attacking senior and middle management across the country, yet there is one group of senior management that is completely immune to these cuts and that is the ministerial corps. Yes, we are all in it together, but not quite if one is a Minister. I do not think that any good argument could be presented from the Front Bench for not reducing the ministerial head count.

I am an enormous fan of the coalition and the Prime Minister, and I think that the coalition is what the country needs at this time. Both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have talked about new politics, a new way of doing things and a new optimism. New clause 7 is the litmus test for new politics, because I do not understand how we can have new politics and oppose reducing the Government's patronage at the same time. I hope that Front Benchers can respond to that point.

To colleagues who are, perhaps, being leaned on by the Whips, I say that this is our chance to take ownership of new politics, which cannot be driven by Front Benchers and the Executive because the Executive are all about taking and retaining power and extending the tentacles of patronage even further. We as Back Benchers will take ownership of new politics tonight; we will do the heavy lifting for the Executive. By going into the Lobby and supporting new clause 7, we will be able to look our constituents in the eye when we go for reselection after the boundary review or the general election and say, "I was different." When they challenge us with that worn cliché, "You're just the same as the rest of them. You're only in it for yourself," we can say, "You are wrong. I was one of those Members of Parliament in 2010 who voted to reduce the number of Ministers."

I have spoken for too long. In conclusion, new clause 7 is the very essence of new politics. The House and my colleagues have the chance to do the right thing tonight and I hope that they take that chance, because they will be respected for it if they do.

Photo of Peter Tapsell Peter Tapsell Father of the House of Commons 8:30 pm, 25th October 2010

I wish to speak in support of new clause 7, which was so ably introduced by my hon. Friend Mr Walker, and to comment on the related issues of the number of MPs and the number of Ministers with which it deals. Paragraph 24 of the coalition programme for government, the contents of which we are, in part, debating today, starts with the words:

"The Government believes that our political system is broken. We urgently need fundamental political reform".

I totally dissociate myself from that shameful statement. If it were true, all the political leaders of recent years ought to resign their seats because they would be responsible. Our "political system is broken" it says. That was the slogan of Oswald Mosley and the British fascists when I was a boy. Mosley spent the war in prison and the political system he despised and described as broken triumphed at home and abroad. Our political system is not broken. We have had some nincompoop Front Benchers, some expense-fiddling Back Benchers and even some who managed to qualify under both categories, but our political system is basically sound and, in parliamentary terms, not very different from what it was in 1945, 1918 and 1815.

It is the duty of an incoming Government in a democratic country to work within the rules and conventions of its political system, not to change those rules and conventions to fit their temporary party political convenience-that is a privilege usually reserved for banana republics. That is why I am opposed to all the so-called constitutional changes proposed in the coalition programme. The Deputy Prime Minister said yesterday-appropriately on "Desert Island Discs"-that when he met the leader of the Conservative party after the election, they agreed together that in the general election both their parties had lost. We should try to reverse that decision of the electorate not by changing the rules of the game but by raising the standard of government. We do not have too many MPs: we have too many Ministers and too many placemen, to use Sir Robert Walpole's phrase to describe the proliferation of what Disraeli later described as the Tadpoles and Tapers of politics, who are now being proliferated to an astonishing degree.

In 1900, when we were the richest and most powerful nation in the world, there were nine Parliamentary Private Secretaries. By 2000, the number had gone up to 47 and it is rising daily.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitutional Reform), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland)

The hon. Gentleman said that in 1900 the UK was the richest nation in the world. Today, in The Scotsman, I read that among the top 15 most prosperous nations, the UK finds itself in the unlucky 13th place, behind Norway at No. 1 and noticeably behind Ireland and Iceland, respectively at 11th and 12th. That is just a point of information.

Photo of Peter Tapsell Peter Tapsell Father of the House of Commons

It is very interesting-even if incomprehensible to me. I make the point in passing that Scotland has gained even more than Britain from the combination of our two countries since the Act of Union.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitutional Reform), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland)

Does the hon. Gentleman feel that the Irish Republic would be better off as part of the UK, or has the Irish Republic prospered and done far better by leaving the UK?

Photo of Peter Tapsell Peter Tapsell Father of the House of Commons

Curiously enough, I shall come to the question of the Irish Republic a little later in my remarks, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me.

Although by 2000 the total number of MPs involved in Government had already gone up from 42 in 1900 to 129, the number of Cabinet Ministers has not greatly increased. It is the number of loyal, but little known and easily sackable bag carriers that has ballooned. At the election, we in the Conservative party were pledged to make Government more answerable to Parliament. How is that to be achieved by maintaining the number of Ministers and increasing the number of PPSs, yet at the same time reducing the number of MPs? At this rate, genuine Government Back Benchers will become a threatened species. There will be no more Pitts attacking Walpole, no more Disraelis attacking Peel and no young Macmillans attacking Chamberlain, yet that is part of the lifeblood of our parliamentary story.

On what grounds is it claimed, historically, statistically or in terms of accommodation, that we have too many MPs? Germany, Australia and the United States, with their federal structures, have far more elected representatives, at various levels of their constitution, than we have. Over the past two centuries, our population has increased from about 16 million in 1800 to about 62 million today. We now have 650 MPs. The proposal is to reduce the number to 600. In 1801, shortly before Trafalgar, there were 658 MPs. In 1885, in the heyday of Liberalism, there were 670 MPs. In the 1918 general election, 707 MPs were elected to the House, before the southern Irish were hived off in 1922-the year in which the Back Benchers of the Tory party reasserted themselves and got rid of Lloyd George.

Universal suffrage was not fully achieved until 1929, but in the two previous centuries the voteless masses were never out of the minds of wise MPs and Ministers. In 1801, the number of people, as distinct from voters, in each constituency averaged 24,000-although it varied a good deal from constituency to constituency. Today, the number is 95,000 and the majority are electors. If we reduce the number of MPs to 600, as is proposed, that average population figure will become 103,000, quadrupled from the 25,000 of 1800 when they had more MPs than we have today. Also, the demands of a constituency on its Member of Parliament have enormously increased in recent years. In my first Parliament, I shared one secretary with two other young and active MPs; now I have three secretaries working for me alone.

Coalition Ministers, in their programme document, claim to hold our political system in contempt, but the strange fact is that the part of the system that undoubtedly works best is that in which the Government are least involved. The best aspect of modern politics is the close personal relationship between MPs and their constituents. Its closeness and extent is unique. Even in Switzerland, the cantonal MP is not seen as being so close and available as most MPs of all parties are seen to be by their constituents in Britain.

While the media and many members of the public often express contempt for our leading political figures-but not, of course, for the Leader of the House-at grass-roots level, whatever the politics of their MP, people are more likely to say, "My own MP does a good job in the constituency, and when I am in trouble, I know that he will do his best to help me." That is the strongest of all the present bulwarks of our democratic parliamentary system.

At a time of economic failure, disgruntled police, fearful public servants, a neglected army and hostile trade unions, which in many countries would be regarded as a dangerous quintet, why tamper with that bulwark? When there are so many more pressing issues to be solved, why set many MPs, even of the same party-or particularly of the same party-at the political throats of their neighbours, as rumours of boundary changes begin to abound? My local press has already speculatively redrawn the six Lincolnshire constituencies and abolished one of them, to general dismay and the discouragement of activists of all parties. Why muddy the political waters with the inevitable charges of gerrymandering, which are certain to be thrown about?

Very wisely, in the United States, changes to the actual constitution occur only very rarely, after years of discussion, and they require a two-thirds majority of both Houses of Congress and the approval of the Supreme Court. In this debate on new clause 7, I have spoken about only two aspects of the so-called constitutional reforms, but in my view, the wide range of constitutional and electoral changes proposed by the coalition Government, taken as a whole, and introduced so early in the life of a Parliament full of new Members, constitute an attempt at a peaceful, political coup d'état, with the sole object of securing the position of Ministers. They have no mandate for the Bill from the country. I therefore urge this Committee to accept new clause 7, and urge the House in due course to reject the whole Bill on Third Reading.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) 8:45 pm, 25th October 2010

I had not intended to speak in the debate, although I support the proposal in the new clause. I am quite certain that our most important role in this place is that of representing our constituents, and I agree with Sir Peter Tapsell that that relationship between the Member and our electors is the most special thing about my job. That is what most Members of Parliament think.

The problem is that that relationship is not sufficiently rewarded by the structures of this place, and in some ways the new clause goes to that issue. It challenges a reward system which says that success is achieved only by being a Minister. I have history here, because I am one of the very few people who, when they were a Minister, asked the Prime Minister to stop making me a Minister because I had had enough. I wanted to jump off that gravy train, for a number of reasons. One of them was that I believed that my responsibilities as a Minister interfered with the relationship that I had with the people of Slough whom I have the privilege to represent.

I have been complaining about late-night debates on the Bill and I did not plan to intervene until the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle spoke. We need to listen carefully to what he said, because his speech was not just about the new clause. It was not just about the number of Ministers. It was an analysis which showed that the Bill is looking down the wrong end of the telescope. The Bill protects the interests of those in government-in power-at the expense of those who put us there. It is not sufficiently focused on the electorate of Britain, on the masses whom we have the privilege to represent, and it is too focused on those who have scooped up the power in what he calls a coup d'état.

In a way, the hon. Gentleman is entirely right. I do not quibble with the fact that the result of the election required a coalition to be created. I am also of the view that the coalition had to be created between the largest party and a partner. But I quibble with the kind of constitutional change that the Bill seeks to bring about, not prefigured properly in any party's manifesto, being rammed through the House of Commons without proper consideration.

That speaks to us about the consequences of not having a written constitution. There are some merits in not having a written constitution. It can create some flexibility and some opportunities to be imaginative and to solve problems as they arise, but it has risks, and today we are in the middle of one of the biggest risks. Without a written constitution, people can take liberties with the constitution. That is happening right now. Liberties are being taken, and those taking the liberties are those in government, who see the reward of elections-the highest thing that they can achieve-as Government office, not representing the masses.

Those of us who think that representing the people of Britain is our highest achievement should say that we will support the new clause and that we will not accept a situation in which a third of those on the Government Benches are on the payroll. That is not acceptable. It is not satisfactory and it creates huge cynicism among the electorate of Britain. I cannot blame them for thinking that politicians are rogues. Most of us in this place know that most are not, but when the system means that people cannot say what hon. Members and I know they think because they are on the Government Benches and they have to just suck it up, that makes people think that politics has no authenticity and that it is dishonest. That is damaging to democracy.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her splendid speech. I had not realised that she was going to end so swiftly.

We have had excellent contributions. Mr Walker said that he lacked ambition. That is clear, I suppose. That has been underlined with three lines from the Whips, but I praise the motion that he tabled. It puts into a new clause the question that I asked the Deputy Prime Minister some few months ago: if the Government plan to cut the number of seats in the House of Commons and do not plan to cut the number of Ministers, surely that will increase the influence of the Government-the Executive-over Parliament. I wholeheartedly support the argument that the hon. Member for Broxbourne made this evening.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitutional Reform), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland)

May I charitably suggest that although Mr Walker might lack personal ambition, he certainly does not lack ambition for the House and its wider membership, which will have been noted on both sides of the House?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

Of course; I did not mean to be ungenerous to the hon. Member for Broxbourne, as I think he well knows. I was praising his ambition, which need not be for the greasy pole-it might be for other things in life.

Sir Peter Tapsell-

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

Well, the hon. Gentleman should be. He carries himself as if he were right honourable-if not most reverend as well.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

Yes, he delivered his remarks with a magisterial largesse- [Interruption.] No, I was not going to say laissez faire.

The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle made some extremely good points, and I hope that many Members will reject the Bill on Third Reading for precisely the reasons he advanced. One of the arguments I have tried to make throughout is that I fully understand why many hon. Members feel that, following the expenses saga in particular, we need to be very humble about the authority of the House and individual Members. However, we should not throw the baby out with the bath water. We should be proud of our representative democracy and the system we have. It does not work perfectly. There are things that have to be improved. As in the church, there will always be things that are semper reformanda. However, we should not in the process suddenly start to say that the whole of the political system is corrupt, wrong and rotten, and that therefore we have to start all over again.

I differ from the hon. Gentleman on one point. He said that the system is not much different from that in 1945, 1918 and 1850-

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

Well, my point remains. Neither in 1815 nor in 1850 were miners able to vote, because they did not qualify under the franchise. In 1885, they were allowed to, but women were not. One can make significant changes to the system, although I think the hon. Gentleman holds a different view from me about reform of the House of Lords. That is where I agree more with the Government Front-Bench team. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman had any particular tadpoles or nincompoops in mind-I can see some images flitting across his mind now, which suggests he had some specific people in mind.

The hon. Member for Broxbourne referred directly to the argument that the Deputy Prime Minister made in January in favour of cutting the House of Commons to 500 Members and the number of Ministers to 73, but of course that is not at all the proposal before us. The right hon. Gentleman has adopted neither measure. It might be that having picked one tune on "Desert Island Discs" on Sunday, he changes his tune entirely when it is replayed on Thursday. That is clearly the situation we have at the moment.

Our system has changed over the generations because it has not been considered right and proper that Ministers thought of their salary or pension as just a tiny part of their remuneration for being in hock to the Crown and that all the other monopolies and benefits accruing by virtue of how they operated their ministerial office brought in far more money. It was Edmund Burke who, in 1782, first introduced changes that meant that Ministers of the Crown had to rely on the properly arrived at financial provisions, rather than on the previous system which was completely and utterly corrupt. As Macaulay said of the 18th century:

"From the noblemen who held the white staff and the great seal, down to the humblest tidewaiter and gauger, what would now be called gross corruption was practiced without disguise and without reproach."

Many in previous generations exercised their ministerial functions solely on the basis of financial corruption. Ministers accumulated enormous fortunes by virtue of being Ministers. It is right and proper that we do not have that system today, and if anybody in the British political system does accumulate, by virtue of their political office, an enormous fortune, there is something going wrong-IPSA must have allocated everything that we have all claimed to just one individual Member.

There was substantial change in 1831 through the Select Committee on the Reduction of Salaries. It suggested a completely different structure, which ended up with William Pitt the Younger, when he was First Lord of the Treasury, earning just £5,000 by virtue of that post, although he had other posts that earned him some £4,300. Today, that would be a considerable amount of money for ministerial office, but at the time MPs were not paid at all.

Today's system relies on two pieces of legislation from 1975, the Ministerial and other Salaries Act, and the House of Commons Disqualification Act, to which the new clause in the name of the hon. Member for Broxbourne refers. Both specify that the number of Ministers shall be 95. The Ministerial and other Salaries Act also lays out how many Cabinet Ministers, Ministers of State, Whips and so on there can be, and it is my simple contention that if one wants to limit the number of Members and ensure that the proper legislative scrutiny function of this House is performed, one has to cut the number of Ministers.

Photo of David Hamilton David Hamilton Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons)

When Mr Walker spoke to his new clause, he made the very good point that, at a time when we are talking about reducing not the number of councillors throughout the UK, but the administrative costs, the chief executives, the directors and so on, it is incumbent on us to talk about changing the Executive and reducing the Executive's power.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

That is right. If we really are to have new politics-that rather amorphous term to which the coalition agreement alludes-it must accept something that we the Opposition were too reluctant to accept when we sat on the Government Benches: that Parliament, when it is free to do its job, does its job better than when it is constrained.

The constraints are multiplying. The number of parliamentary secretaries is not quite growing daily, as the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle suggested. He made it sound as if they were breeding and reproducing. The number is not growing daily. However, it is certainly true-

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

Ah! Parliamentary Private Secretaries. Indeed, I was going to come to the point about PPSs, because the hon. Member for Broxbourne was absolutely right to say that they are included in the ministerial code of conduct. It is a bit odd that a list of PPSs is still not available to the public. If one goes to the Cabinet Office website, one finds that the most recent list refers to July 2009. There is a list on, which is a website that Government Members might consult sometimes, detailing 22 Parliamentary Private Secretaries, but as I understand it there are considerably more than that. The Government should be straight with the House and tell us precisely how many people are really on the payroll. By payroll, I do not mean that PPSs are in receipt of moneys.

The ministerial code of conduct, which incidentally every PPS should have been provided with and signed, although I suspect that most have not, makes it absolutely clear:

"Parliamentary Private Secretaries are expected to support the Government in important Divisions in the House. No Parliamentary Private Secretary who votes against the Government can retain his or her position."

I say again that this House does its job as a reviewing, revising and legislative body when it is freest from the shackles of patronage, but with the numbers of Ministers and PPSs having grown, there is already an unnecessary constraint on the real power of this House to do its job.

We have talked about what happens on the Government Benches, but what also happens is that the Opposition feel that they have to match the ministerial team-and of course, the PPS team-man for man and woman for woman, so we end up not with 95 Ministers but 190. [ Interruption. ] Daniel Kawczynski is saying from a sedentary position that Labour did the same-yes, and I have already said that we were too slow to accept these points. However, there is a big difference. He is supporting a Bill to remove 50 Members of Parliament while keeping the number of the Ministers the same, which means that Ministers will form a larger percentage of the House.

When one includes Ministers and PPSs on the Government side and their shadows on the Opposition side, one ends up with a large number of people who are not entirely free to speak their mind because they are bound by collective responsibility. There are many things to be said in favour of collective responsibility: nobody wants to be run by a shower who are completely and utterly unable to organise themselves and exercise some discipline. However, we also need a significant number of people on the Back Benches who are able to deliver their verdict on legislation and to vote at all times entirely with their conscience.

Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Conservative, Peterborough 9:00 pm, 25th October 2010

It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman is trying to have it both ways. He is arguing that people who are not members of the Government are a bulwark against an oppressive Executive, and I accept that. At the same time, he admits that his own Government-the previous Administration-got it wrong, and I agree. However, this is not necessarily just a numerical issue. We should cast our minds back to the Iraq war debates, when a huge Back-Bench cohort failed to hold the Executive to account on one of the most important issues of foreign policy in our country's history since the war.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I think I agree with the hon. Gentleman. In the previous Government we were not always as alive as we might have been to the fact that this House does its job best when it is most free to be able to do so. However, the difference that he has to face is that unless he intends to agree with the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle, he is supporting a Bill that wants to cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600. That will, in effect, cut the number of Back Benchers, because it does not cut the number of Ministers. My argument is that if we are going to cut one group, we should cut the other. That is entirely in line with the new clause.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

Everybody accepts that collective responsibility is an important function, particularly in this media-savvy world in which we live, where it is important to ensure that any Government do not look like a shambles. Does the hon. Gentleman accept, however, that there is a distinction between collective responsibility for much of the legislation that goes through this House and this sort of Bill-a constitutional Bill that should not be subject to quite the same shackles to which he has referred?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I agree. That is why I have been trying to argue that Members such as the hon. Gentleman who have taken a long-standing interest in constitutional issues should feel free not necessarily to vote with their Front Benchers. I know that he has already exercised that right on several occasions.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

The hon. Gentleman says that having a large group of PPSs will make it more difficult to hold the Government to account, but some might argue that when Mr Blair was Prime Minister it was the rebellion among PPSs threatening to resign that finally forced him to go.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I know too much about that episode to want to divulge exactly what went on. The hon. Gentleman is a PPS now, is he not?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

Right, but he is not yet listed on any publicly available list of PPSs. [ Interruption. ] Well, I am sure that the country is grateful and that people will welcome the hon. Gentleman with acclaim and instantly start putting up red and white bunting in honour of his historical associations with Poland.

My point is that the payroll vote has increased. It has increased because of the dramatic increase in the number of PPSs, which partly happened under our rule but I think is happening again at the moment. The increased payroll vote is not just because of that, though. It is also because of unpaid Ministers. I was an unpaid Minister for a while and sympathise with the Deputy Leader of the House, who is one now. We now also have a particularly interesting concept, which is a Liberal Democrat Whip who is not even an unpaid Minister but an organiser of the Liberal Democrats, but who is sort of on the payroll as part of the ministerial team. Clearly, because their job has the word "Whip" in it, they are expected to vote with the Government at all times.

In addition, a vast extent of patronage is still available to Prime Ministers. They can make Members chair an ad hoc committee or ask them to be a delegate to some conference here or there. The whole business of patronage can be profoundly dangerous to how we do our business. I have already referred to how that applies to Opposition parties.

I will be warm towards the Government briefly and say that they have made some moves to remove one element of that patronage, which we had suggested before and for which I remember fighting when Robin Cook was Leader of the House. They have done that through the election of Select Committee Chairs. That has been entirely beneficial and I support it fully. I can see at least one Committee Chair in his place, and he is a splendid chap. He might not have become Chair of that Committee if it had been a matter of patronage, or if he had become Chair by virtue of patronage he might not have felt so free to use his voice in these debates over the past few days. He has pointed in the direction of the new politics, but we can still go much further.

Of course we must consider the financial costs of ministerial office that can be saved, although I do not want to go too far down the populist route attached to that. Sometimes it is valuable to have Ministers who are properly supported and can do their job well. When I was in the Foreign Office it had only three Ministers in the House of Commons, which made it very difficult for foreign delegations to be met by a Minister from the Foreign Office. I do not know whether that did the United Kingdom any favours. I do not wish to adopt every populist measure that is thrown in front of us, or to kick it in the net, but I do want to ensure that the House has sufficient Members with Back-Bench independence to be able to hold the Executive to account.

Many of those who have made the most significant contributions to the House over the centuries have not only never sought ministerial office but actively declined it, from Andrew Marvell, who turned down office on five or six occasions, to Plimsoll, Bradlaugh and a series of others. They made dramatic changes to the lives of many ordinary people in this country, and they did not need ministerial office to do it. They were able to do it from the Back Benches.

Photo of Zac Goldsmith Zac Goldsmith Conservative, Richmond Park

I wish to speak very briefly in favour of the new clause. There is a long history in this House of Members challenging the ever increasing power of the Executive. We heard recently from the Leader of the House, who is not currently in his place:

"The terms of the trade between Government and Parliament have shifted too far in the executive's favour. That is not good for Parliament; but neither does it lead to better government."

The Prime Minister also highlighted those concerns in February, saying:

"We'd want to reduce the power of the executive and increase the power of Parliament even if politics hadn't fallen into disrepute."

We also heard from the Deputy Prime Minister before the election, which he described as

"an opportunity to turn the page on decades of relentless centralisation within government."

He argued for a dispersal of power away from the centre and a cut in the number of Ministers and Government Whips, saying:

"The rules of the game at Westminster are stacked in favour of the ruling party; parliament is rendered largely impotent to hold ministers to account."

We have heard over the past few days and weeks very strong arguments for equalising the size of constituencies and reducing the number of MPs, but to do that without also reducing the number of Ministers would profoundly undermine the authority of Parliament. The proposal is not radical, or even a solution to the problem that so many hon. Members have identified. It would neither minimise the power of the Executive nor increase that of the legislature. It merely calls for a reduction in the size of Government in line with the planned cuts to the number of Members of Parliament. In effect, it will do no more than prevent trends from getting worse.

If the Government are truly committed to decentralisation, they can demonstrate that today by backing the new clause. I strongly urge them to do that.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I support the new clause, to which my name, along with those of so many others from different parties, is attached in the unpublished list.

When considering the new clause, the Committee should bear in mind not only the experiences of the parties that form the Government and occupy the Government Benches, but those of the rest of us who come to the Chamber and the Committees of the House and are confronted with the realities of the Government Whip system and Parliamentary Private Secretaries-part of the peculiar ecosystem here-who can represent their constituents but are at times bound not to represent their consciences. The idea that someone can represent their constituents but never their conscience is a peculiar political creation, from which the House should try to get away. It brings politics into some disrepute if we appear effectively to neuter ourselves. The straits into which PPSs are cast are unnecessary; they should be allowed more freedom than they generally exercise or are encouraged or permitted to exercise.

New clause 7 led me to that issue by way of making a general observation about the dominance of the Executive in the House. In recent years there have been attempts to reduce the Executive's absolute control of the agenda and the timetable, and changes have been made from appointing Chairs of Select Committees to electing them. That is all to the good, but new clause 7 is the reality check. As Mr Walker said, it is the genuine test of whether the new politics means anything.

I have no argument with reducing the number of Members of Parliament. I did not vote for 650 the other night; I am happy if there is a reduction. However, alongside that, we need a reduction in the size and voting dominance of the Executive in the Chamber.

Of course the answer to the problem of the over-supply of Ministers in this House is not to over-supply them in another place. In the previous Parliament not only many Ministers, but Cabinet Ministers-Secretaries of State-sat in another place. I joined others in criticising that lack of accountability. For me, the answer was not to bring Ministers from the Lords into this House-the last thing I wanted was to bring Peter Mandelson back anywhere, not least to the Dispatch Box, given our experiences of the man. On that famous occasion in Hartlepool, he said that he was not a quitter but a fighter. I always believed that his theme tune should have been the Simon and Garfunkel song "The Boxer"-not for the lyrics of the verses but for the chorus, which is simply "Lie la lie" throughout.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I said, not for any of the words of the verses, but for the chorus. That alone would make a good theme tune for Peter Mandelson.

The answer was not to bring Lords Ministers into this place; the question was: why were there so many Cabinet Ministers in the Lords? The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that there are limits in statute on the number of Cabinet Ministers, but we saw how the previous Government got round that. They went to the limit for Cabinet Ministers and then had a series of ministerial high chairs put around the Cabinet table, so that lots of other Ministers had rights of attendance at Cabinet, simply to ensure that more Members of the House of Commons were in the Cabinet room than would have been there otherwise. That is the sort of lazy, sloppy, self-serving thinking that seizes parties in government. They use and abuse, and bend and flex rules and limits in ways that suit themselves, which does nothing to enhance the reputation of politics in general or this House in particular.

We have a choice this evening with new clause 7. If the Government are being straight and sincere, they should accept the spirit of the new clause. I know that we will need other provisions to ensure that one way round this is not suddenly to increase the number of Ministers in another place or whatever-but the full spirit of new clause 7 should be embraced. The Government tell us a lot about the big society. They are against big government out there, but they are all for big Government in here. New clause 7 really is the test for the Government. In particular, it is the test of whether they will allow their own Back Benchers to vote according to their conscience on how they want this House truly to operate under the banner of the new politics.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration Committee, Chair, Public Administration Committee 9:15 pm, 25th October 2010

I rise briefly to congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Walker on the spirited and coherent way in which he moved his new clause. I should also like to congratulate my hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith, who also made a coherent and spirited defence of the new clause.

It is not my intention to speak for very long. In fact, it had not been my intention to speak at all in this debate, partly because I am losing my voice, so this speech might not continue for long. In fact, it might be cut down in its prime. However, I have been watching the Deputy Leader of the House nodding at some interesting moments during this debate, when he seemed to be endorsing the past statements of his party's leader. I am waiting with bated breath to see how he melds the previous position of his party's leader with the present position of the Government.

While he is preparing his remarks, I hope that he will reflect on the fact that the very office of Deputy Leader of the House is, in itself, rather a modern invention. I think that it was invented during the previous Labour Government. I do not know whether it ever existed before-I look to my hon. Friend the Father of the House-because it had never been deemed necessary for there to be a deputy to the leader- [ Interruption. ] Chris Bryant was the embodiment of the invention. The post reflected the desire of the Executive to create more jobs for the boys-if I may put it that way-than existed before.

There is a simple test that we need to apply to this Bill, and to new clause 7 in particular, which is: does it strengthen the House of Commons? It was axiomatic before the election, and in the aftermath of the expenses scandal, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, that every party leader should speak in grand terms about the need to strengthen the accountability of Government and to strengthen the House of Commons. Can the Bill do that? It cannot, unless we reduce the number of Ministers pro rata to the reduction in the number of MPs. I should point out that my remarks are not some manic attack on the power of Government. There are plenty of ways in which Governments can appoint people to jobs in order to get things done. Indeed, I should say to Mark Durkan, who spoke just before me, that it is possible to appoint more Members from the other place. It is also possible to appoint more special advisers-and let us face it-we have a rash of special advisers in Government these days compared with what we used to have. There are all kinds of ways both of ensuring that there are ambassadors for the Government in office and people to implement the Government's policy and political direction, and of ensuring that the Government remain accountable to the House.

Ministers do not need to be Members of the House in order to be accountable to it. It is worth reflecting on the fact that as we have grown the number of Ministers in this place, we have left Whips and even Parliamentary Private Secretaries to speak for the Government in the other place, because Governments are so interested in filling ministerial offices with Members of Parliament, to secure their influence in this place. However, if there were more Ministers in the other place there is no reason why they should not be invited to the Bar of the House to answer questions. That is a reform that is long overdue. There are plenty of alternatives.

I should like to reflect on the term "the new politics" that has crept into political parlance. I am not quite as old and wise as my noble Friend Lord Heseltine, who sat for many years in this place, and who I saw opining, at the very formation of the coalition, that there was no such thing as the new politics; there was only the old politics, and politics would always be the same. That is of course true, but if the new politics is going to mean an increase in the domination of the Executive in the House of Commons, that would seem to be the antithesis of what those who coined the phrase were seeking to convey.

In fact, politics is changing. When I was first elected in 1992 there was still quite a strong element of deference in the House of Commons towards authority and the Whips. Members who were first elected in the 1950s would have served in one or both of the world wars, and virtually every Member of Parliament at that time had done national service of one sort or another. That Edwardian deference has gone from today's politics, however, and Governments will have to accept that the House of Commons is becoming more assertive. An example can be seen in the whole expenses debacle. I refuse to call it a scandal, because what the newspapers uncovered was much less a scandal in respect of individuals and much more a scandal in terms of the system that had developed, in which the press itself had connived. The outcome of the expenses debacle sent a message to everyone that it was time for Parliament to reassert its role, and it seemed that the party leaders took that message up. What really came through in that episode was how useless Parliament had become.

What is Parliament's job? It is to ensure that the laws of this country are fit for purpose, to stand up for the liberty of the citizen and to control the supply of money to the Government. Looking at those three tests, we can see that the House has performed miserably over the past decade. More and more legislation, particularly secondary legislation, is passed that is unfit for purpose and not scrutinised properly. The House has completely failed to control the massive growth in public expenditure that has led to the deficit crisis that we now face, and as for protecting the liberties of the individual, I am afraid I think that most of our constituents would feel that the House has been found wanting.

If we are to improve the way in which we do our job, will we be helped if we allow the Government, of whichever party, to have patronage over and to give hope to a wider and wider group of Members, and to instil into the principle of politics in this House that the be-all and end-all is ministerial office? Would that be conducive to a more accountable system? We do not have the separation of powers in our system, but we nevertheless rely on a degree of separation between the Executive and the legislature. I submit that the new clause is exactly the signal about our determination to hold the Executive to account that the House needs to send not only to the Government of the day but to the people at large. We must send this signal that we take our jobs seriously and that we are not going to be seduced, cajoled or flattered into accepting the Executive agenda more and more.

I end with this point. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne, who moved his new clause so ably, is a member of the Public Administration Committee, which produced the report "Too Many Ministers?" in the last Parliament. I am afraid that I have to inform the Government that we have already launched a new inquiry, asking "What do Ministers do?". That might seem a cheeky question, but at this time when there are so many Ministers, we know from the revelations in various biographies that Parliamentary Under-Secretaries have jobs and activities created for them to keep them busy.

When it comes to the Foreign Office, I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Rhondda is right to say that we need ambassadors for Britain, representing both Parliament and Government, but I simply do not believe that to be true of all Departments. Do we need more Ministers to represent the Government in this House? It was suggested to our Committee that Whips speak for the Government in the other place, so why cannot Whips speak on behalf of the Government in this place? Why do they have to remain mute and silent here, as if they had no views of their own and no speaking purpose in a House of whose being speaking is the very essence?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Is my hon. Friend aware of the irony that his Committee is carrying out this inquiry, but the Government are using that fact as a reason why our hon. Friends should not vote against the Government position tonight-because it is all going to be sorted out in the future by my hon. Friend and his Committee? Can he put my hon. Friends right, and tell them that they need to be in the Aye Lobby for this new clause?

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration Committee, Chair, Public Administration Committee

I can put them right. As Chairman of that Committee, although I do not act as Chairman in this capacity, I will be in the Aye Lobby myself on new clause 7. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne said, it represents a very modest maintenance of the status quo. That is what this is about-checking an advance or a further incursion of the Executive into the House of Commons. It is a holding position, while my Committee completes its work.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I think this has been an interesting and illuminating debate. I am grateful to Mr Walker for tabling his new clause and for the way in which he spoke to it. I am also particularly grateful to Mr Jenkin, the Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee, not only for contributing to this evening's debate but for his Committee's work-and that of its predecessor, which, as he rightly said, published the first report.

We have heard from a number of Members of all parties, including from the Father of the House. Sir Peter Tapsell often gets criticised-or, perhaps, slightly cheesed-for his lapidary style, but I know from my experience over many years that he is well worth listening to on many issues. Although I do not agree with everything he says-I do not think he would expect me to-I always find listening to him a useful exercise.

Mr MacNeil, who is not in his place at the moment, intervened earlier and sought to persuade the Committee that the Republic of Ireland is the epitome of prosperity, which I am not sure is an argument that holds great water. Fiona Mactaggart, who is also not in her place, was moved to tell us why during the last Parliament she asked to be a Minister no longer.

Chris Bryant said repeatedly that the Government of whom he was a part were too slow to take on these issues. Too right they were! They never took on these issues one single bit; there was never the slightest attempt to reduce the size of government or to relax the grip of the Executive on Parliament. It is only since the present Government have been elected that we have been able to deal with some of these issues. He also said, in passing, that he was suspicious that Parliamentary Private Secretaries were not acquainted with the ministerial code. He is quite wrong on that; of course they are-they are given the ministerial code to sign on taking up their positions. That is as it should be. The hon. Gentleman will have to look at the websites himself.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

It is available, and the hon. Gentleman will be able to find it if he cares to look at the Government websites.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform) 9:30 pm, 25th October 2010

I am sorry, but no list of parliamentary private secretaries is currently available on a website or anywhere else. Unless the hon. Gentleman can provide the address of a website that features the information, it is not available.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the departmental websites, he will find that the PPSs are clearly listed. It is hardly a deep, dark secret.

Photo of Lee Scott Lee Scott Conservative, Ilford North

If my hon. Friend looks at not just individual websites for Members of Parliament but the parliamentary website, he will see that it includes the information that a Member of Parliament is a PPS. That information was added to my name within about four weeks of my appointment.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting the Committee straight on that.

Zac Goldsmith supported the new clause. Mark Durkan made the important point that the oversupply of Ministers was not best addressed by their being put in the House of Lords. I entirely agree. The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex expressed a contrary view, saying that he rather liked having Ministers in the House of Lords, but I am not sure that I agree with him.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

I do not like the idea of lots of Ministers being in the House of Lords, but the fact is that there are currently eight unpaid Ministers there. If the hon. Gentleman does not want them to be there, why on earth are the Government putting them there?

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I will let the hon. Gentleman into a secret: I am not the Prime Minister. It is the Prime Minister who makes appointments. I am simply saying that I do not think we would improve the present position by putting more Ministers in the House of Lords. In the last Parliament, members of the Cabinet-Secretaries of State in charge of Departments-were in the House of Lords, and we had no way of holding them to account. That was an affront to this elected House, and I am pleased that we have put it right.

Let me explain why I cannot support the new clause, although I have a degree of sympathy with the view of Mr Walker.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

First, however, I will give way to the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration Committee, Chair, Public Administration Committee

Is the hon. Gentleman seriously saying that there is something unconstitutional about having a Secretary of State in the other place?

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I said that it was undesirable, and I believe that it is undesirable. I said that in the last Parliament. I called for Secretaries of State in another place to be brought before this House for questioning, because I think it is wrong for Members of the House of Commons not to have access to those who lead Departments. That remains my position, and I am not going to change it.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I do not quite follow the hon. Gentleman's argument. Is he saying that the new clause means that any Secretary of State could not be in the House of Commons, and would have to be in the House of Lords? I see nothing in the new clause that would force a Secretary of State to be in the House of Lords.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am not suggesting that that would be the case. I am picking up on points made during the debate, which I think is part of the job of a Minister responding to a debate. The hon. Member for Foyle expressed the hope that a reduction in the number of Ministers in the House of Commons would not result in an increase in the number of Ministers in the House of Lords. I suggested that I agreed with his view. The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex does not agree with it. So be it. That is the nature of debate.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

The Deputy Leader of the House has made it clear that he wishes to respond to the contributions made in the debate. I think that one of the most important contributions, with which I entirely concur, came from Fiona Mactaggart. She considered it highly regrettable that a Bill of such constitutional importance was being rushed through so quickly and so early in the Parliament, in a way that gave the public-certainly those who are interested in these matters-the impression that it was being introduced simply to keep in place the current arrangements introduced by the current coalition. She suggested that it was solely a result of the electoral arithmetic that obtained in May 2010, rather than having been introduced in the long-term interests of Parliament for decades and, indeed, centuries ahead.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

That is a Second Reading point, but it is not a point that I agree with or accept in any way. We have already had extensive debate of the timing of the Bill; I believe we have given that subject a substantial amount of debating time. The most important point is that it is necessary to make rapid progress on the Bill if we are to have in good order both the referendum and the boundary changes suggested in the Bill.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

If the intervention is on that point I have to say that it is not germane to the new clause, but if it is on a different point then of course I give way.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

Whether or not it is germane is obviously for the Chair, not the hon. Gentleman, to decide, but I am grateful that he has given way.

I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not want to mislead the House. He has suggested that Parliamentary Private Secretaries are listed on each of the websites- [Interruption.] Government Members, and in particular Ministers, groan, but that is perhaps because they want to see the extension of patronage rather than the extent of patronage to be known to the whole of the House. The truth of the matter is that I have looked at the websites of four Departments and there is absolutely no evidence in any of them of who the departmental PPSs are.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Well, perhaps the hon. Gentleman needs to look a little more carefully.

May I now move on to the principal arguments that I want to address? I have already said that I have a degree of sympathy with what Mr Walker said about the reductions.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

No, not for the moment because I have just said that I want to set out some of the reasons I have difficulties with the new clause.

One point worried me slightly, and I have to say that the hon. Member for Broxbourne and I may have an honest disagreement on it. He appeared to be advocating a complete separation of powers.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

But it was suggested in the speech moving the new clause. The hon. Member for Broxbourne seemed to give the clear impression that he personally would favour a separation of powers, meaning that there would not be this country's current parliamentary democratic system where we have Ministers drawn from this elected House. Rather, he would prefer Ministers to be drawn from the ranks of those outside the House, which is much more akin to a presidential democracy. [Interruption.] I may be misrepresenting the hon. Gentleman, and if so I apologise. However, if that is his view-and it is a perfectly respectable view-it is not one that I share. [Interruption.] I see other Members nodding because it is their view, and I understand that to be the case.

My second point is that this is not simply an issue about Ministers. It is an issue about patronage and the extent of the patronage of the Prime Minister and Government of the day. That is what we need to address, rather than the narrower issue of Ministers in this House.

My next point is that there is not a simple arithmetical relationship between the number of Members of the House and the number of Ministers: to suggest that there is is to reduce the argument and to take it beyond what is reasonable. Ministerial responsibilities must reflect what the Prime Minister and Government of the day feel they need in order to do their work effectively. There is a relationship between the number of Ministers in this House and the number of others in the House whose positions are created by patronage and both the perception and the reality of the independence of this legislature. That is a perfectly proper comment to make, but there is not, I suggest, a simple arithmetical relationship.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting, therefore, that the Prime Minister of a future Labour or Conservative Government, or indeed the Prime Minister of what we have at the moment, could extend the power of patronage to have as many Ministers as they wish in order to control the political process?

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

As I shall go on to describe, what the previous Government did when they reached the buffers of the current restrictions was simply to create all sorts of fantastical posts that were not described as "Ministers" but were, nevertheless, an extension of patronage. We know what the Labour party did when in government and I think we can do better.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

The Minister seems to be saying that these things should be judged on the ministerial work load, as opposed to numbers. I do not know whether this is the case for him and his constituency, but the work load of MPs has increased rapidly in recent years. The Government are proposing to reduce the number of MPs by 50, so this Bill clearly has nothing to do with work load, yet he is giving the distinct impression that this is a simple case of turkeys not wanting to vote for Christmas.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Without rehearsing arguments from other parts of the Bill-we must not do that-I can say that the interesting thing is that the proposal to reduce the number of Members and equalise constituencies seeks to make some Members who represent very many fewer constituents than others have the same work load as those of us who represent larger constituencies; we comprise about a third of the House.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

The Deputy Leader of the House questioned whether it is wise to put an arithmetical limit on the number of Ministers, but an arithmetical limit of 95 is already in place. Is he suggesting that we remove that and just have a free-for-all in this place?

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

No, I am not. I am suggesting that a slightly more complicated relationship is involved than perhaps the simple solution suggests; I have already mentioned one of the factors, which is that this solution does not take into account the position of the House of Lords and the reform of that House in which we are engaged.

Several hon. Members:

rose -

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am not making terribly much progress, but I shall give way to the hon. Member for Foyle.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

May I take up the point that Mr Walker raised about the Deputy Leader of the House's comment that the House should not become concerned with setting an arithmetical limit and seeking an arithmetical formula? The Bill says that there should be 600 MPs and 600 only-not one more and not one less. No flexibility is to be left to the boundary commissions, to Parliament or to anyone else, and constituencies are to be formulated every five years, again on the basis of a tyranny of arithmetic, so how can the Deputy Leader of the House tell us that within this regime of the new arithmetic and the new politics there cannot be arithmetical guarantees on the fixed number of Ministers in this House?

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Again, the hon. Gentleman seeks to draw me back to debates that we have had on other parts of the Bill. However, I repeat that I do not think that there is a simple arithmetical relationship between the number of Ministers in the Government and the number of Members in this House, other than the view, which is my view and that of right hon. and hon. Friends, that we need to reduce the scope of Government patronage. That is something in which we are already engaged.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

My hon. Friend made a very important point a few moments ago about the staggering number of special advisers that the previous Labour Administration had. I believe that they even had one for timber products and for rain forests, as well as having special envoys for Cyprus and for Sri Lanka. It is slightly hypocritical of the Labour party to accuse us of patronage of this kind when there was so much in their Government.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Well, the hon. Gentleman must not tempt me into spelling out in graphic detail the degree to which what the Labour party is now saying is the opposite of what it did in government, but of course it is the case.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Before the Deputy Leader of the House gets carried away by what my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski, who is a PPS, said, will he correct the impression that he has given-that the previous Labour Government had the maximum number of Ministers, which is 95? In fact, they had only 90 at the most. It is only this Government who have gone up to the maximum number of Ministers. Will he explain why that is so?

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration Committee, Chair, Public Administration Committee

The hon. Gentleman's honesty is touching. Will he explain very simply why 95 is the correct number?

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I think it very well might not be; it is likely that at some stage in the future we will reduce the number of Ministers. The hon. Gentleman is refusing to accept that I agree with a great deal of the thesis that has been put forward.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons


Let me go on to the next point, which is the timing of what is being suggested. This is not the hoary old chestnut that used to be described by the former Member for Cambridge, Mr David Howarth, as the doctrine of unripe time-everything was always for the best possible purposes, but the time was never ripe for it to happen. I am not saying that. I am simply saying that various elements of our proposals for reform of the constitutional arrangements and for the politics of this country are moving forward in various pieces of legislation and at various times. By the end of this Parliament, they will be in place, but this is not the right time for this measure.

Let me try to make some progress. The Government are committed-as the fairer Members who have contributed to the debate have already recognised-to passing power from the Executive to Parliament. The hon. Gentleman, who is a member of the Backbench Business Committee created by this Government, will, I hope, recognise that that is the case-

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

To which hon. Gentleman was he referring?

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

No, I am not a member of the-

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

I should like to point out to the Deputy Leader of the House that I am not a member of the Backbench Business Committee.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I apologise; I thought that the hon. Gentleman was. I apologise to him and to the House. I hope that it will not prove to be a resigning matter that I mistook him for a member of the Backbench Business Committee. Knowing him to be a fair-minded man I know that he will attest to the fact that this House has already moved the control of much more parliamentary time to Back-Bench Members through the Committee. We have also seen the election of Select Committee Members and Chairs, to which we have already drawn attention in this debate.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has also become the first Prime Minister in history to give up the power to call a general election at the time of his choosing. I think it is clear that the Government are not looking to extend their own influence, but believe on principle that power should be dispersed. Indeed, we will bring forward legislation very soon to disperse more power to local communities and local authorities, enabling them to do their job more effectively.

I have difficulty in accepting that there is a need to put this new clause into this Bill at this time. It is now October of 2010-[Hon. Members: "Well done!"] It is good to know that Opposition Members are engaged in the serious constitutional debate. There are four and a half years until the provisions of this Bill will take effect-[Hon. Members: "No."] There are four and a half years until the provisions of the Bill on the boundary reviews and the reduction in the size of this House take effect. It does not result in an immediate change to the size of this House. We are legislating at speed to allow sufficient time for boundary reviews to be conducted nationally on the basis of a smaller House, but when we have time to reflect, we should use that time.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee

Surely new clause 7 would also come into effect in four and a half years, at exactly the same time as the other aspects that the Minister has mentioned.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Yes, it would, but my point is that new clause 7 does not perfectly encapsulate the purpose that the hon. Gentleman, the Government and I might share of making government fit for purpose in that new Parliament. Given that we do not have to pass this new clause as part of the Bill, it seems sensible to take our time, listen to representations and people's views, and see whether we can come up with something better.

We have heard very clearly that the issue at stake is the size of the Government's payroll vote. The proposition we have heard is that the Bill will give the Executive undue numerical dominance in the House and that we must therefore legislate now to reduce the number of Ministers here. It is a numerical fact that if the Bill becomes law, and unless we legislate to the contrary at some stage, the Government elected in 2015 will be entitled to make Ministers out of a higher proportion of the Members of the House. They will not be compelled to do so, but they will be entitled to, and recent Governments have tended to appoint as many Ministers as they can, or very close to that number. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and I have acknowledged before that this issue deserves consideration, and it would not take a great detective to find the number of occasions on which I have said precisely that. On the face of it, it is not desirable that the payroll vote should be expanded as a proportion of the House's membership. We have said that we will consider how to address this issue and we will do so.

We are told that Governments legislate too much, and the new clause concerns an issue that might be better resolved without legislation. Governments are capable of reducing the number of Ministers without being compelled to do so through legislation. More importantly, perhaps, the payroll vote is often taken to include Parliamentary Private Secretaries, who are not covered by current legislation and who would not be covered by the new clause. It is only by self-denying ordinance that those numbers are limited. Governments have clearly been capable of self-restraint, and that self-restraint would still be necessary if the new clause were accepted. As I have said, under the previous Government we had not only Ministers and PPSs, but tsars, envoys, special representatives, Regional Ministers and assistants to Regional Ministers. A lot of them have been removed but they were all elements of patronage within the House. If it is patronage we are seeking to address, then we have to address all those appointments, not just the ministerial ranks.

Let me repeat a point that was made earlier. Legislation would not cover the number of Opposition Front Benchers, which is also relevant if the concern is that there are too few independent voices from the Back Benches. I accept the principle of legislation on ministerial numbers as a back-stop, but surely the number of Ministers must be a function of need, which is not necessarily related to the number of MPs. When previous statutes increased the number of Ministers in the House, they were unrelated to any changes in the number of MPs: there has never been a clear link or a set ratio. At the moment, there can be one Minister for every 6.842 Members of Parliament or thereabouts. The new clause would enshrine that ratio in law in perpetuity. If it were to become law, the Government could appoint as Ministers no more than 87.692307 Members of the Chamber. That would be the relationship. I merely make the point that I do not believe that a simple arithmetic relationship is necessarily the right one to address.

We should not forget the purpose of having a ministerial presence in the House: we need sufficient Ministers to attend to the business in the House, to make statements, to answer questions, to introduce Bills and to contribute to debates. The House rightly expects the highest standards of accountability from its Ministers and we strive to meet those standards. Indeed, it is often complained that Ministers are too rarely seen when the House discusses issues for which they do not have direct responsibility. That reflects the reality that we demand a lot of our Ministers in this country, both to govern and to legislate.

The question of how many Ministers should sit in the House of Commons is bound up with other questions-for example, considering the number of Ministers in the House of Lords. As the Committee is aware, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is chairing a Committee on reform of the House of Lords. The Committee comprises Members from all three major political parties, as well as from both Houses- [ Interruption. ] From a sedentary position, the hon. Member for Rhondda asks, "What's that got to do with it?" as though reform of the House of Lords-the thing for which we have been arguing for 100 years-has nothing to do with the constitutional arrangements of this country.

The cross-party Committee is discussing all issues pertinent to reform, including size and composition, and whether the second Chamber is wholly or mainly elected. It will also discuss the position of Ministers in the reformed Second Chamber. Currently, there are far fewer Ministers in the House of Lords than in the Commons, but we will need to think carefully about how the distribution of Ministers may be affected by any changes to the size of the second Chamber, or by the introduction of elected Members.

The Committee is charged with producing a draft Bill early next year, which will then be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. The Government hope that will be carried out by a Joint Committee of both Houses. It is possible that arguments may then be made for either a greater or smaller ministerial presence in the second Chamber. We should wait to hear the views of the Committee.

There is also an argument that the limit on Ministers in the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 is arcane in other respects. For example, it makes no provision for Ministers who might fill the role on a part-time basis or a job share. It is expressed in terms of numbers of individuals rather than full-time equivalents. That should perhaps be part of any consideration.

For all those reasons, although I welcome the debate, the Government are not minded to accept the new clause. We shall reflect on the arguments made today and set out plans once we have achieved some consensus on the composition of the second Chamber, including the number of Ministers there. If it still appears- [ Interruption. ] I think it is important for the House to hear this. If it still appears necessary, there will be plenty of time at that stage to legislate before 2015. I urge the hon. Member for Broxbourne to withdraw the new clause, on the basis that we shall very carefully consider the arguments he has made.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

I say to new colleagues who were not here in 2009 that it was the most awful experience. We were led up the garden path by a powerful Executive and had our legs cut from underneath us. We vowed that we would never, ever let that happen again. We vowed that we would take control of this place back from the Executive.

I wish I was being braver in my new clause. All I am asking is that when the House of Commons reduces by a mere 50, we reduce the number of Ministers by a mere eight, yet in this age of new politics the Front Bench cannot even give us that. Colleagues, this is the night when the new politics will be born, or it will die. Please support new clause 7 tonight, to give new politics some meaning, because it will be driven by Back Benchers-it can never be driven from the Front Bench.

I call for a vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:-

The Committee divided: Ayes 241, Noes 293.

Division number 100 Speaker's Statement — New Clause 7 — Variation in limit of number of holders of Ministerial offices

Aye: 238 MPs

No: 290 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


Abstained: 3 MPs

Abstaineds: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

New schedules 2 to 5 brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill .

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair .

Bill, as amended, reported .

Bil l to be considered tomorrow.